Online registry impedes released sex offenders from entering society
Originally published in the University of Daily Kansan
(U-WIRE) LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jonathon Bourgeois doesn’t wear a visible scarlet “A” on his chest as Hester Prynne does in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” He wears an “SO” that appears on the Internet and follows him around like Prynne’s scarlet “A.”
He is one of 50 people in Lawrence, near the University of Kansas, whose name, photograph, offense, address and map that shows where he lives appear on the Kansas Bureau of Investigation Web site that tracks the identity and whereabouts of sex offenders.
Like Prynne, Bourgeois doesn’t feel he deserves his scarlet letter. But it’s there and he said it has cost him six years of his life. In that span, he’s been in and out of jail and found it difficult to find and keep jobs and reintegrate into society.
Even worse, according to Bourgeois, is that his offense — being in a consensual sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl when he was 18 — is grouped together with serious offenders like rapists and child molesters.
But for Bourgeois, now 25, and the more than 3,000 registered sex offenders in Kansas, the persistent presence of the sex offender registry makes it nearly impossible to move on with their lives. To them it is a punishment beyond the debt they’ve already paid to society.
“It amazes me that with the brilliant minds in this country, they couldn’t come up with a better system,” Bourgeois said. “There’s been an unbelievable amount of pain in my life because I’ve been put on that list. It makes it 10 times harder to put behind you.”
Proponents of the politically popular registry say that it protects communities by warning residents of the whereabouts of sex offenders nearby. Advocates of the list say that sex offenders tend to repeat their crimes.
However, a growing number of critics say that sex offender registries provide communities with little more than a false sense of security because they fail to protect them from serious offenders, and they lump minor offenders in with more serious sex criminals, and assume that sex offenders are likely to commit more sex crimes, despite of statistics that indicate otherwise. Furthermore, they are a scarlet letter that ostracizes offenders and makes it nearly impossible to rehabilitate and restart their lives by finding jobs and housing in their communities.
CAN THEY BE TRUSTED?
The sex offender registry has gained repeated front-page attention in Lawrence because of the state’s plan to release Leroy Hendricks – a 70-year-old repeat child molester – to live in Lawrence after leaving the Larned State Hospital where he was confined for 10 years after he completed his prison sentence.
Hendricks once said his death was the only guarantee that he would stop molesting children.
But he is still alive and could live in Lawrence under 24-hour surveillance. A group of outraged Lawrence parents started a petition to ask that Hendricks be moved elsewhere.
Ironically, if Hendricks comes to Lawrence, his address won’t be disclosed because his crimes occurred before 1994, when the state law mandating the sex offender registry took effect.
Bourgeois and 50 other Lawrence residents won’t be as lucky. Their pictures and addresses appear online every day.
But to Stephen McAllister, professor at the University of Kansas Law School, the inaccuracy of the list detracts from its stated purpose.
McAllister successfully defended before the U.S. Supreme Court the constitutionality of the Kansas law that kept Hendricks and other dangerous sex offenders locked up in mental hospitals after they had completed their prison sentences. However, he said as a listing of potential offenders the list was woefully incomplete and even failed to keep track of offenders who were on it.
“If they want to move to Utah, it’s very hard to keep track of them,” McAllister said. “The problem is you have to have accurate information, and that’s very hard to do.”
Further, McAllister said, many other sex offenders aren’t even on the registry, such as those who haven’t yet been caught or those who were convicted before 1994 when the law went into effect and don’t have to register in Kansas, like Hendricks.
ARE THEY ALL SEX OFFENDERS?
Critics say that a bigger problem with the list is that it combines minor sex offenders with serious ones, which makes the list impractical for deciding who on the list is a threat and who is not.
Bourgeois said that he was an example of an offender who posed no risk to the community.
He was 17 years old when he started dating his 15-year-old girlfriend in Wellsville. Their relationship became illegal under Kansas law when he turned 18. Police searched his car during a traffic stop in Olathe and found letters he had written to his girlfriend that contained sexual references.
“It was a love letter, how I felt about her, what I wanted from our relationship,” Bourgeois said. “The sexual reference was brief, offhand and sort of a joke, but it was enough for them to ask her about it.”
Even though his girlfriend’s parents didn’t want to press charges, the state booked him for indecent liberties with a child. He pled down to a lesser charge of solicitation. He said he took the deal because he was scared, confused and thought that the plea bargain would make the problem go away sooner.
Six years later, Bourgeois is still on the list and still deals with the consequences that accompany it.
Bourgeois said that the KBI registry doesn’t tell people who the real threats are – pedophiles, rapists and multiple offenders – as opposed to those like him with more minor offenses.
“Call me a jerk, or a felon even, but throwing me in the same category with them?” Bourgeois said.
Another sex offender on the list, who agreed to be quoted only if he name is not used, said that including minor offenders diluted the purpose of the list.
“By populating the list with people like me, or the 18 year old who was dating the 15-year-old, the list is perhaps doing an injustice to us while failing to do its purpose to do justice to the rest of society because of its length and basic accuracy deficiencies,” he said. “Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf?
“Perhaps a severity grading scale should be assumed for the list. Short of that, leaving those who represent little or no risk to society off the list would seem the best way to handle the situation,” he said.
Proponents of the registry said that trying to assess risk-levels for offenders was dangerous.
Laura A. Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, which lobbied for passage of the federal law that encourages states to have registries, said she was vehemently opposed to including risk-assessment factors on public registries. She cited examples of offenders with lesser prior offenses who went on to commit more serious sex crimes. She also said the devastating impact the sex crimes had against the victim were reason enough to track all sex offenders.
“They’re now being exposed for who they are,” Ahearn said. “Our position is when you’ve committed a sex crime, you have left a mark on a person’s life forever.”
Rick Fischli, director of sexual offender management for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the state could not reasonably assess each offender on a case-by-case basis and determine which ones were a risk to re-offend.
“To separate out what is serious and not so serious is very difficult,” Fischli said. “It’s really tough to pinpoint on an individual basis to find out who is dangerous and who isn’t.”
Fischli said that when he worked as a parole officer in the department of corrections, he saw minor offenders transform into serious offenders. He also said some of the crimes listed on the registry resulted from plea bargains and didn’t adequately indicate the severity of their crimes.
“I can tell you that some people who were convicted of indecent solicitation of a child committed power rape of someone who was under 16,” Fischli said.
The registry law exists across all 50 states in large part because legislators find that it’s a law that makes them look good politically, McAllister said.
“It’s a very tough-on-crime position to take,” he said.
But even some politicians question the all-encompassing nature of the law.
Rep. Tom Sloan (R-Lawrence) said he favored keeping the registry to protect communities, but didn’t consider a case such as Bourgeois’ one that should be on the registry.
“In a situation like that, I don’t consider that to be a sexual offender,” Sloan said. “I’m more concerned about pedophiles; I’m more concerned about serial rapists, people of that nature.”
He said, “16-, 17-, 18-year-old boys and girls, they’re having sexual relations, and I don’t consider that to be a sexual offender situation, certainly not in the case of this list.”
Wes Crenshaw, a Lawrence author psychologist who works primarily with victims and their families, but has also worked with intra-familial sex offenders, agreed that the list was too broad and feared the public wouldn’t know how to reasonably consume it.
“The problem with that approach is it is all-inclusive,” Crenshaw said. “My worry about it is I don’t trust the list to do me any good.”
Crenshaw said he never bothered to look at the KBI registry until the emergence of recent media reports about Hendricks, the repeat sex offender moving to Lawrence. Once he checked the list, he discovered that one registered sex offender lived across the street from his office. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to act differently or how he could assess whether the offender was any sort of a risk.
He said that offenders like Bourgeois didn’t need to have the community watching him.
“Lesser offenders don’t deserve to be on that list,” Crenshaw said. “It serves to dilute the purpose of that list.”
Even Charles Branson, Douglas County district attorney, said that the scope of the list might be too wide.
“Does the list being all encompassing lessen the purpose of the list? Maybe,” Branson said.
DIFFERENT THAN OTHER CRIMINALS?
But Whitney Watson, spokesperson for Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, said that keeping a broad range of criminals on the list was necessary because of the nature of sex offenders and their tendency to repeat their crimes.
“We’re in favor of this because it helps identify those individuals whose crimes tend to be repeated,” Watson said. “The recidivism rate for sexual offenses is proof enough for the need of a sex offender registry.”
But the U.S. Department of Justice reports that only five out of every 100 sex offenders will repeat the same crime compared with six out of 100 non-sexual criminals who will re-offend.
That means of Lawrence’s 50 sex offenders, between two to three are statistically apt to re-offend.
For Branson, that’s threatening enough to keep the scope of the registry wide enough to include even minor offenders.
“There’s still a large number of crimes that are committed by strangers,” Branson said. “The goal is to try and have a mechanism to prevent things from happening.”
Fischli, the director of sex offenders at the department of corrections, agreed it was appropriate to single out all sex offenders to protect a small number of potential victims.
“I think that there are times when a society has to do things in an attempt to make the innocent more safe at the expense of the guilty,” Fischli said.
The list acted as a deterrent to potential criminals, Watson said.
“One would think that it helps prevent a sex offender from preying on little children when he knows his identity and address are out there on the Web,” Watson said. “It should also be effective as parents of children can become better informed about what potential dangers to their children may be living in the vicinity.”
But McAllister said that the list wouldn’t do much to prevent such crimes because so many sex crimes go unreported that the list is not indicative of precisely who commits them.
Only one in every four rapes and sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, according to the Crime Victims Council, a non-profit victims rights advocacy group. Of sexually abused children in grades five through 12, fewer than half of the boys and only three out of every 10 girls report the crime.
Crenshaw agreed that the list would mislead the public into thinking that they knew where all potential criminals were.
“I don’t want the registry to create false security,” Crenshaw said. “There are far more offenders in our community than are on the list and most are known to the victim – family members, friends, people we trust. We need to teach our kids what they need to know from an early age: That certain behaviors are simply wrong, no matter who is doing them, and to tell us when they happen.”
Yvonne Cournoyer, program director for Stop It Now!, a nationwide group that offers counseling to those who fear they might become sex offenders, said the list by itself wasn’t protecting the community because so many people are not on it.
“It creates a big sense of, ‘If someone is not on that list, I don’t need to worry about them,’ and that’s a big fallacy,” Cournoyer said.
Critics of the list also argue that the public knowing that an offender lives nearby doesn’t do much to protect them anyway.
McAllister said that some offenders would continue to commit their crimes even if they knew they were being watched, and that the list only tells the public where they live, not what they actually do.
“A lot of them are going to re-offend even if it’s known,” McAllister said. “All it tells you is where they live, not where they’re going to be.”
UNEQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYMENT
The registry won’t reveal where they work, either. But for many of the registered sex offenders, the registry makes a job difficult to come by, even as a condition for their parole.
Bourgeois said it was the stigma he faced as a registered sex offender that made it nearly impossible to get a job. Because he was required to disclose his offense to employers, he found it difficult to be taken seriously by those he interviewed with, especially when they discovered the offense involved a child.
When asked on an application whether he had ever been convicted of a felony, he would write, “Yes, will discuss in interview.” He said it always came up in the interview, and employers would not react favorably when they learned that his felony was sexual in nature, and more so when they learned the technical charge involved a child.
“If you have a pile of applications and you have 15 people applying for one job and you’ve written that you’re a sex offender, you go to the bottom of the pile,” Bourgeois said.
And when they discussed it in the interview?
“As soon as you say, ‘sexual offense,’ you could see the way they would react, and you would know,” Bourgeois said, his voice trailing off.
Another convicted sex offender who lives in Lawrence said he encountered trouble keeping jobs when his coworkers learned about his criminal past from the registry.
“Paul,” who asked that his real name not be used for this story, said that after his conviction for aggravated indecent liberties with a child, he lost his job as a telemarketer when a female co-worker discovered his conviction on the Web site. He was fired one day after she complained to management.
“She said she didn’t feel safe at work,” Paul said. “I looked through all their policies; the only thing you had to report was for drugs. In Kansas, you can get fired for anything.”
He didn’t disclose his conviction when he later applied for and received a job at Wal-Mart. But management eventually found out about it and it became an issue at work, he said.
“I do believe it affected job promotion and pay,” he said. “Everything I did wrong was looked at with a magnifying glass. I wanted to work in sporting goods but you can’t sell guns when you have a felony. Even though I knew every computer system there, I couldn’t take a promotion.”
He eventually grew tired of his dead-end status at Wal-Mart and quit.
“I’m pissed off at the world at this point,” he said.
He now works in construction in Lawrence where said he no longer had to worry about job security related to his offense now that he holds a union card.
Crenshaw, the therapist, said a rocky and inconsistent job situation was dangerous for sex offenders and makes it more difficult to return to their normal lives.
“If people can’t get jobs, then they suffer, and their family suffers,” Crenshaw said. “Moreover, joblessness can be a significant contributor to further anti-social behavior. Working is a key to rehabilitation.”
Stacey Mann, advocacy services coordinator for the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said it was inappropriate for sex offenders like Bourgeois to blame their plight on the registry.
“That is a concern and a problem that all sex offenders face,” Mann said. “Those convictions are public record, regardless of it being a sex offense or being on a registry.”
Branson, the district attorney, said all criminals had to face the prospect of disclosing their criminal background to a prospective employer, and sex offenders weren’t any different.
“I don’t think that’s different from any other person who has committed a felony,” Branson said. “The moral of that is: If you’re worried about getting a job in the future, don’t commit a crime now.”
Fischli, the corrections specialist, agreed that there would be some jobs that convicted sex offenders couldn’t get, such as at a school or a hospital. For any job, he said, the onus was on offenders to show that they had changed from the time they had been convicted.
“For most jobs, it really comes down to the offender articulating where he is now as opposed to where he was then,” Fischli said.
HOME ISN’T WHERE THE SEX OFFENDER IS
It doesn’t get much easier when the offender seeks a place to live. The stigma of being a sex offender in a community and having the residence appear on a map makes the offender an outcast in the neighborhood. Many don’t feel welcome and have difficulty finding a landlord willing to lease to them.
Teresa Jacobs, program manager for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation – a victims rights organization named after an 8-year-old Minnesota boy who disappeared in 1989 – said the inability to maintain a steady living environment was a danger to the offender and the community.
“The less stable the living situation, the more at-risk they are to re-offend,” Jacobs said.
Bourgeois didn’t re-offend, but he said finding a place to live was infuriating. When he was released from the correctional facility, he couldn’t immediately find a landlord who would approve his rental application. He bounced around from one friend’s house to another, never staying in one place for long.
His transience prevented him from receiving mail from the KBI that was supposed to track where he was. This made him automatically in violation of his registration. Once he finally did find a place to live, he was arrested for failing to keep up with his registration.
McAllister said despite many problems with the sex offender registry law, the list isn’t going away anytime soon because it’s too popular politically.
However, Rep. Sloan said that even with its benefits, he didn’t rule out the possibility that the list might need to be altered somewhat.
“It serves the public by giving them some notice,” Sloan said. “Whether the list is updated regularly enough or accurate enough, that’s something that technically needs to be addressed.”
Even with its shortcomings, district attorney Branson said they paled in comparison to the possibility of even one more child falling victim to a sex offender.
“There are few crimes out there that evoke a response from the public like sex crimes,” Branson said. “There’s not a community outcry that there is a theft offender next door.”
As for Bourgeois, he still lives in Lawrence where he is engaged. His fiancee is four years younger than he is, a larger age difference than the one that got him arrested at age 18.
“That age separation means nothing now, but I still get lumped together with these other sex offenders,” Bourgeois said.
He also has a two-and-a-half year old son.
He works construction in Kansas City and hopes to save enough money to go to school. He is off parole and has paid his final court fees.
Bourgeois said he was close to finally moving forward with his life, but having his name and photo on the list – his scarlet letter – is one hurdle he can’t quite leap over.
He was recently brought in for questioning by Lawrence police who were investigating an incident where a man exposed himself to young girls in a nearby park.
Bourgeois said investigators told him it was routine procedure to question all sex offenders in the area. Although he was quickly cleared of involvement, he said the stigma of his scarlet letter was still hurtful.
“It’s demoralizing,” Bourgeois said. “It makes you feel like other people think you’re a degenerate.”
Right now, he’s working to get the offense itself expunged from his record.
“I can get it expunged next year. It would be nice not to have to deal with it anymore,” he said.
Through it all, he has never visited the KBI Web site to look at his own name and picture on the list.
“I told myself I didn’t need it,” Bourgeois said. “I know what’s happened in my life and I know what I’ve done. I felt it would lend credibility to it, which it doesn’t have.”